dancing for your life – Ty Alexander Cheng
Next week, at the Out On A Whim #4 auction to benefit Whim W’Him,* Ty Alexander Cheng will dance with his former partner Kylie Shea Lewallen, in artistic director Olivier Wevers‘s sassy, sizzling Coquette. It’s probably been a year since they last crossed paths, and he obviously relishes the occasion. “It’ll be sexy and lots of fun,” he says, waxing nostalgic about “old times” with Whim W’Him, of which he was one of the founding members.
Talk about about cognitive dissonance! Coquette is about as far a cry as you could easily get from Ty’s current employment. He has been touring with Donald Byrd’s harsh, tender and riveting response to the Holocaust. The Theater of Needless Talents, has been performed this week (Thursday through Sunday nights, Oct. 25-28) at Spectrum Dance Theater http://spectrumdance.org/company/theater-of-needless-talents/
But then Ty Cheng leads a particularly rich and varied life. He’s come a long way from a difficult childhood, and it’s not in his nature to do anything by halves. If he has any complaint about his current existence, it is the need to put off to the future developing relationships as close and deep as he would like. Right now full-time school, full-time work as a Spectrum principal (this is his 7th season with the company), and the struggle to extend himself as an artist fill his days and nights to the brim and beyond.
A typical Ty day might begin with a soak in the tub to ease the previous day’s aches. (When the company is on tour, the dancers do a lot of their own physical therapy.) Then it’s on to grabbing coffee and a quick bite before company class. Sometimes Donald has Ty teach. The different parts of Ty’s life are complexly intertwined. At Evergreen State College, he is enrolled in a program based on Independent Learning Contracts. It allows him—with the approval of his professors and the dean—to pursue an independent research and performance program, in addition to fulfilling requiremenssts in musical history and the theory. For “Performance art in Interbellum Europe,” the subject of his current project, he is looking at the role that the possibility of making art played in maintaining the sanity, and sometimes even physical survival of concentration camp prisoners. At the center of Ty’s researches is Ervin Schulhoff, a highly regarded Jewish Czech composer and pianist, who died of tuberculosis at Wülzburg concentration camp in 1942 at the age of 46. Ty is also considering questions such as what might Schulhoff’s influence on music and how we listen to it have been had he not. Performance in The Theater of Needless Talents, thus, has multi-layered resonance for Ty.
Warmed up from class, the dancers go into rehearsal—of what depends on what’s needed. The day I was at Spectrum on Lake Washington Blvd. earlier this week, they had to wait for the upstairs theater space to be readied for next week’s show. So meanwhile, down in the studio, dancers practiced little segments, on their own or in twos or threes. Donald went over a couple of wonderfully expressive duets, including one of Ty and Cara May Marcus.
Rehearsal goes on for perhaps four hours, in which Donald and the dancers go over specific moments, working to clarify exactly what is being felt and communicated. They keep coming back to the significance of the trapezoid in the middle of the performance space. Ty says that in Donald’s view, “It would be disrespectful to try to be the characters they are portraying,” but that the dancers are “trying to locate our own despair and how to connect to that. We are thinking about why we are artists.”
Rehearsals often are grueling, physically, mentally and emotionally for all the dancers. By late afternoon when they finish, Ty is, not surprisingly, exhausted. But often it’s off to Evergreen to teach a master class of maybe 80 students. The struggle to keep body up to date and mind sharp discipline, and focused is continueal. But it also gives energy, working in the company, teaching and the feeling of giving back. “The more and more I work with Donald and at Spectrum,” Ty declares, “the more I know I need this.”
Then to add into the heady mix, along comes this new chance to perform Coquette.
Ty is also one of the dancers working with Olivier on his new piece, for Spectrum’s Studio Series, funded by the Princess Grace Choregrahpy Award.
Ty greatly enjoys the contrasting movement styles of Olivier Wevers and Donald Byrd.
“Polar opposites” Ty calls them, remarking that Donald’s choreography “looks linear, even the hands, cutting through space,” while Olivier’s movements are “rounded, big, whimsical.” He finds switching between the two invigorating. Each idiom shines light on the other, forging new connections with a wider world.
*For tickets to Out On A Whim #4, go to http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/280828 – Secret Whimmer Password: Coquette
About the Author Victoria Farr Brown
I am a writer, mostly of fiction, based in Seattle, and a long-time lover of dance.
Behind the Scenes focuses on WhimW’Him—Olivier Wever’s dance company, formed in 2009 and now affiliated with Intiman Theatre—its projects, artists, and whatever ideas, whimsical or otherwise, occur to me in the course of watching the company grow.
Thanks to Marc Van Borstel, Bamberg Fine Arts, and Spectrum Dance Theater